Out of sight, but not mind

Managing remote teams is a matter of adequately managing remote relationships


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In 1969, my father, Ashoke, left everyone and everything he knew and cared about in Calcutta, India, and emigrated here. My mother, Sujata, followed in 1972 – just two weeks after meeting and marrying my father.

My father was a civil engineer, only 25. My mother was a recent college graduate, just 21. Neither spoke or understood English well.

Fast-forward to the 1980s, when I would routinely hear one of my parents’ shout, “Pubali, pick up the upstairs phone because we’re talking to Desh (Bengali for ‘homeland’).” Meaning they had called home, and I had about three minutes to convey roughly three months of my goings-on to people I barely knew and rarely saw. All the while shouting over a crummy phone connection, over a 12-hour time difference, speaking a language that was foreign to them (while I’m fluent in Bengali, it’s heavily American-accented and severely lacking in complex vocabulary), explaining things which often required considerable explanation and detail to be understood, and not truly remembering what the person on the other line looked like.

Once the chat was over, I went right back to the people and life in front of my eyes. The India folks were out of sight, hence out of mind. 

You cannot deny that some, if not all of the above, sounds like managing remote teams. 

Now, I am not (directly, at least) comparing my relatives overseas to managing remote teams. Rather, I am pointing out that managing remote teams is truly a question of adequately managing remote relationships.

To me, the exercise of managing a remote team is a question of accepting that the most essential need of successful human relationships – routine, in-person communication – is going to be few and far between. And to accept this means to adapt and develop alternative methodologies to support the need.

Enter “managing remote teams” into a search engine and you’ll get 10,000 articles telling you things that you likely already know: You need to be crystal clear in defining success; you have to be understanding of foreign culture and accents; you have to adapt to time differences; you cannot be judgmental; you should do whatever you can to get to know the people in the other offices, etc. Common-sense stuff. 

The purpose of this article is to inspire meaningful change for those whose organizations have multiple locations, for those who are frustrated with their remote team productivity, or for those who aren’t confident they are managing their remote teams as well as they should.

Start by asking yourself, “Should I explore optimizing relationships with our remote teams?” and then ask yourself, “What are the desired outcomes of doing so?” By knowing precisely what you are looking to achieve, you will be far more successful in creating a change management plan for yourself and your team.

The next step is to identify and document the current pain points. A key piece: that you are as quick to look to your own faults and gaps when identifying these points as you are to look elsewhere. Another key piece: everyone’s pain points have value. So if your remote team’s lead values in-person communication and you don’t, it doesn’t diminish the value of that pain point. 

Now it’s time to translate the concerns in a transparent way, and it’s always a good idea to lead such a discussion by revisiting all the desired outcomes that were identified right out of the gate. How, who, when, and what is much easier when everyone is on board with why. 

Finally, I see tremendous value in the concept of calibrating the expectations of everyone involved in the process. Time differences, language barriers or expensive business trips cannot be manipulated easily, for example. Unspoken or unrealistic expectations will derail the effort. So calibrate and do it often. 

Thirty years ago, the hows of excellent remote relationships were limited to mail, telephone and travel. Thank goodness technology has changed that for us. 

What hasn’t changed in 30 years, however are the whys. Strong relationships between people have benefits that far exceed strong quarterly results or someone to have a beer with when traveling on business.

What are those benefits? I challenge you to explore the exercise outlined above and tell me what you learned. Looking forward to hearing from you. 

Pubali Chakravorty-Campbell, a business operations consultant for Human Resource Partners LLC, can be reached at 603-749-8989 or pubali@
h-rpartners.com. 

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